The story behind the original set of paintings
In the beginning of my studies of Tibetan Buddhism in 1973, I personally found most of the traditional thangkas with their many figures, deities, buddhas and detailed landscapes, overwhelming. After receiving instructions on meditation and philosophy from Geshe Nawang Dhargye at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharmsala, India, and from Lama Thubten Yeshe at Kopan Monastery in the Kathmandu Valley, Nepal, we meditators were instructed to focus on visualising one figure. Lama Yeshe encouraged this point of concentration by commissioning me to paint several large thangkas of just the main deity. The intention was to clarify the deities and buddhas for visualisation purposes.
Westerners needed time to understand the symbolism within these figures and slowly learn how to read the surrounding imagery, depicted in the structure or in the robes of the figures. Everything in these paintings has symbolic meaning that relates to one’s own personal self -development, which in turn relates to our path to enlightenment.
Secondly, my intention was to make the deities more life-like, which I attempted by using fine detailed shading so the figures look absolutely like real beings, not two-dimensional cartoon characters. This was not only for my personal use but also for the larger Dharma community.
In 1983, I approached the director of Wisdom Publications and this set of paintings was commissioned by him personally, taking 5 years to complete in 1988. These paintings have historic value because they were published and sold as cards and art prints all over the world. Many copies, even pirate copies, have been made – you can even find them in the street shops of Dharmsala and Ladakh.
From the sales of these publications, with world-wide distribution, these images have become quite famous, and helped to spread the Dharma. Many people told me how their entrance into the Dharma was through catching a glimpse of one of these cards, because it resonated with some part of their mind. This reflects the power of the individual image and kept inspiring my efforts. As a Hollywood art dealer commented, “Each painting can hold a large room”.
One should not forget that the deity or the buddha are objects of refuge, and become important in times of trouble, especially at the time of death, because this is probably our last source of refuge, when doctors and medication no longer have any effect. As Lama Yeshe used to say, if you do the practice at the time of death, Manjushri or Tara, for example, will come and guide you through the bardo – the intermediate state between this life and the next. From my own personal experiences at times of crisis I have found their support to be invaluable, because even when thoughts get fragmented, what remains in the mind is the image.